A vibrant community built around a shared passion for backcountry skiing
Words by Sam Trombley, Granite Backcountry Alliance
Acommunity is not held together by one place but by the shared values, goals, and interests of its members. Here in the Mt. Washington Valley, there’s a vibrant community built around a shared passion for backcountry skiing. The reward of putting in the work to get to incredible terrain, and the connection felt with the land you travel on, isn’t something you get at a resort. There’s so much more to the culture and lifestyle of backcountry skiing after you take off your gear. From stewardship to youth development and career opportunities, the backcountry culture has become part of the Valley’s DNA.
A Legacy of Skiing
Mt. Washington Valley is blessed with a rich ski history; Hannes Schneider, dubbed the father of modern-day skiing, came to North Conway with his family in 1939 to escape Nazi Germany and made the town an important center of the international ski world. There is also a deep heritage of skiing, from the first descent of Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine in 1914, to the ski trails developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. With the introduction of mechanical lifts, many of these beautiful, secluded trails became abandoned, and New Hampshire’s human-powered backcountry skiing options became largely relegated to either expert terrain in the steep peaks of the Whites, or glades that skiers would cut for themselves on their own property, or at times, someone else’s (often without permission).
As ticket prices grew at modernized alpine resorts—and with the emergence of lighter backcountry gear and more interest in exploration out of bounds—backcountry skiing has resurged and is now the fastest-growing segment of the ski and snowboard industry.
To make backcountry skiing more accessible, and to broaden its impact on local communities beyond solely recreational purposes, several organizations in and around Mt. Washington Valley have developed programs, events, and resources catered to the backcountry movement and the emerging outdoor economy.
Seeing a need for a community-oriented backcountry ski group with more accessible terrain, Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA) was formed in 2016 as a connector and convenor for those who want more than just to ski—they want to be part of the movement that instills stewardship and personal responsibility in the backcountry for generations to come. GBA aims to support a local community around backcountry skiing in New Hampshire and Western Maine by providing low-impact, human-powered backcountry skiing opportunities to the public through the creation, improvement, and maintenance of ski glades. With over 1,200 members, GBA created “Graniteland,” a network of 11 below-treeline glade ranches (the Graniteland term for a glade zone) and four historic CCC trails. In the fall, hundreds of volunteers head to glade ranches to take care of the spaces they will be recreating on come winter—and the network is growing every season.
Glade creation is not the only goal of GBA. It improves the foundation of the sport through partnerships with public and private landowners, safety education, and creating a unified culture of respect for the environment and other skiers on and off the trail.
That’s why GBA developed Ski Kind with Winter Wildlands Alliance. This backcountry responsibility code promotes a commitment to lead with your best self in the skin track, around the parking lot, up on your local mountain, and in the greater community to keep the backcountry open, inclusive, and protected.
GBA has implemented specific initiatives as part of the Ski Kind program to address the needs of our backcountry community in northern New England. The Ski Kind Trailhead Ambassador Program offers volunteers the opportunity to foster positive experiences at the glade ranches and enhance the backcountry responsibility code. Volunteers set up at the base of glade ranches on Saturday and Sunday mornings in the winter, ensuring folks park appropriately, offering information on the terrain, and promoting leave-no-trace principles. Program perks include a GBA membership, free products from GBA, and an annual volunteer grand prize raffle. If you’re interested in joining the Ski Kind Trailhead Ambassador Program, visit www.granitebackcountryalliance.org/ski-kind-parking-ambassadors.
2023 Backcountry Events
M.W. Otto Rhode Memorial Skin & Ski
January 28, 2023 | Mt. Washington Auto Road
The Mt. Washington Auto Road has a long history of racing to the summit of Mount Washington in every season. The M.W. Otto Rhode event is a day dedicated to the first ascent of the mountain and is the only day of the year that skiing is allowed on the Auto Road with alpine or snowboard equipment. The race, led by Ski the Whites, proceeds as far up the road as weather allows, offering a 4,618-vertical-foot climb that can be taken at a competitive or leisurely pace. This event is a fundraiser for the 501c(3) nonprofit Granite Backcountry Alliance. Tickets go on sale at midnight on December 31 and typically sell out within 24 hours.
Mt. Washington Backcountry Ski Festival
February 9-12, 2023 | Pinkham Notch
The main event of the backcountry skiing community in the Northeast is the Mt. Washington Backcountry Ski Festival, which offers guided tours, skill-building clinics, yoga sessions, gear and equipment demos, friendly competition, live music, and vibrant après parties. Entering its sixth year, the festival is hosted by Synnott Mountain Guides and Backyard Concept.
Last Skier Standing
February 10, 2023 | Black Mountain of Maine | Rumford, ME
One of the most unique uphill ski events in the country, racers compete to see just how long they can go. Organized by the Ski the Whites crew, competitors take off each hour for a lap on Black Mountain’s 1.1-mile, 1,000-foot vertical uphill route. The race concludes when the “Last Skier Standing” shows up at the start line. In 2022, Brody Levin from Salt Lake City took the prize by skinning and skiing for 65 consecutive hours. Visit www.skiblackmountain.org/list-of-events/last-skier-standing.
Wild Corn Backcountry Shindig
March 31 – April 2, 2023 | King Pine Ski Area
The season finale of the backcountry season is the Wild Corn Shindig. The crew from Granite Backcountry Alliance leads a three-day mountain takeover at King Pine Ski Area, shutting down all lifts and creating a backcountry resort for the weekend. Celebrate the transition from winter to spring with sweet corn bumps, demos, gear sales, funky costumes, live music, activities, and more. Lodging deals are available all weekend. Wild Corn is a great introduction for anyone interested in getting into human-powered skiing and riding—the perfect mix of hot laps and the best basecamp party of the year!
Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon
March 18, 2023 | Great Glen Trails/Tuckerman Ravine
Entering its third decade, the Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon is the Northeast’s premier single-day adventure race. It now consists of fat bike, XC ski, snowshoe, mountain run/skin, and skimo legs. Racers compete as individuals or relay teams to complete the course that starts at Great Glen Trails and finishes on the western flank of Tuckerman Ravine. Paying homage to the original American Infernos of the 1930s, the skimo leg of the race includes a section of giant slalom ski racing set in the alpine zone above treeline on Mount Washington. Proceeds from the event support the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, promote avalanche education and outreach across the white mountains, along with the promotion of responsible sustainable use of the high Presidentials to protect the “Tuckerman experience” for generations to come.
Introducing young skiers and riders to the backcountry is key to continuing our community’s longstanding commitment to human-powered, low-impact recreation. The New England Ski Museum brings the living history of skiing to 4th graders in Carroll County. Every year, students participate in the reenactment of Hannes Schneider and his family at the North Conway station and spend the day learning about the past, present, and future of skiing in the area. In 2022, GBA was invited to incorporate a backcountry component, introducing students to the sport, as well as highlighting the jobs that are available in the ski industry and the broader outdoor economy. Each student takes what they learned from the experience to create a specialized project related to the history and innovations of skiing and their personal interests, which are presented in December at a community showcase.
The Mt. Washington Backcountry Ski Festival, the largest backcountry ski expo in the Northeast, offers a four-day backcountry experience with courses for all abilities and ages led by top guides around the region.
This includes a two-day backcountry course designed specifically for teens with training in off-piste ski skills, avalanche education, and ski mountaineering. Experiencing the backcountry with their peers, middle and high school students develop skills in leadership, problem-solving, communication, risk management, and teamwork.
The course is developed and led by CVA Backcountry, the first ski-academy-level program in the United States where young athletes can be immersed in the backcountry environment, learn skills that enhance personal development, and refine technique for a lifetime of achievement and love in the mountains.
A crucial part of youth development in the backcountry is making the sport accessible and welcoming to families. GBA offers a value-driven family membership to enhance the backcountry experience that includes discounts to partner brands, weekly newsletters, and events with activities tailored to young athletes. The glade ranches are designed to have varied terrain for all levels of skiers, and GBA’s Graniteland guidebook is an excellent resource for families to learn about backcountry skiing and the glade ranches together. And what better family experience than cutting glades in the fall and skiing them in the winter? GBA encourages families to join fall glade days, which instill a sense of ownership and empowerment to share in the wealth of outdoor assets and the responsibility of protecting those assets for generations to come.
The backcountry community is a great avenue for those looking to explore a career in the outdoors. This is exemplified through the OUTDOOR OFFICE program, developed by Granite Outdoor Alliance, a statewide business alliance with over 100 member organizations, plus passionate outdoor enthusiasts who support the growth of the outdoor economy. The goal of OUTDOOR OFFICE is to provide a snapshot experience of the adventure profession, whether a participant is interested in changing their profession to fit their passion, or just learning new skills as an outdoor hobbyist. Hosted at the Mt. Washington Backcountry Festival, OUTDOOR OFFICE seeks to provide exposure to adventure professions, including journalism, videography, mountain guiding, photography, and more.
Participants have the opportunity to learn from the industry’s most prominent instructors, such as Backcountry Festival and Synnott Mountain Guides founder Mark Synott—who also happens to be a New York Times bestselling author and veteran of the North Face athlete team. Synnott, together with the other OUTDOOR OFFICE instructors led by Joe Klementovich (photography) and Thom Pollard (videography), lead the Pitch to Publication program, starting with a class assignment that requires elements of all three mediums. Aspiring journalists, videographers, and photographers form teams to develop and pitch a multimedia story, based on a topic of their choosing related to the festival, to a professional publication. By tapping into creative storytelling and business skills, participants give depth and meaning to their projects while working under the pressure of a deadline—simulating the experience of working for a top outdoor industry publication. Last year, participants successfully pitched and landed two articles in the Conway Daily Sun focused on diversifying the outdoor industry and inclusiveness in the ski community.
Aspiring adventure professionals can also put their skills to the test by entering the Diamond 48, a 48-hour film competition to hone in on camera, storytelling, decision-making, and stress-management skills to prepare for a unique debut at the backcountry ski festival. The winner takes home a $1,000 cash prize, and all competitors take with them a new addition to their portfolio and a fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled experience that will stand out on a resume and for future job opportunities. Last year, the winning film was created by CVA backcountry team member Kai Glidden and featured a short documentary about women in the backcountry.
Granite Backcountry Alliance is a non-profit organization that advances the sport of backcountry skiing in New Hampshire and Western Maine by providing a network of low-impact, human-powered backcountry skiing opportunities to the public through the creation, improvement, and maintenance of ski glades.